This is truly an annus horribilis, with our nation suffering not only from a massive pandemic but also with the very foundation of our society under internal attack on multiple fronts. This has hurt higher education in many ways. But a couple of unrelated events this past week gave me a little hope that sanity has not completely disappeared from American, including collegiate, life.

The Harper’s Magazine Letter

A healthy number of prominent academics were on the list of nearly 150 signatories to a letter to Harper’s bemoaning growing intolerance of free expression and divergent ideas. Among other things, they said, “The free exchange of ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted....More troubling...institutional leaders...are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms....professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study....”

This refreshing challenge to the worst manifestations of the Cancel Culture was signed by famous writers (notably J.K Rowling, Margaret Atwood and Gloria Steinem), but also by a host of well known academic scholars: Noam Chomsky (M.I.T.), Nicholas Christakis (Yale), Francis Fukuyama (Stanford), Atul Gawande (Harvard), Jonathan Haidt (NYU), Anthony Kronman (Yale), Deidre McCloskey (Illinois-Chicago), Steven Pinker (Harvard), Salman Rushdie (NYU), and Ronald Sullivan (Harvard) to name just ten.

In the past, such as the 1950s when Sen. Joseph McCarthy briefly was a threat to free expression, many supporters of free expression signing a letter would likely have been university presidents, the likes of Harvard’s James Bryant Conant, Chicago’s Robert Maynard Hutchins, or California’s Clark Kerr. But today, for the most part, too many of them are the enemy, imposing punishments on individuals who are insufficiently woke or politically correct. There are some exceptions (Robert Zimmer of the University of Chicago?) but too few. Non-academic university bureaucracies are too often running colleges, mostly contemptuous or indifferent to the search for truth and beauty in an environment of free expression.

Well intended and morally justifiable protests sometimes build a momentum of intolerance and terror, as the French Revolution taught us (for the relatively few among us who still read and respect tales of our past). The Jacobins started out as democratic, anti-monarchical reformists who became, quite literally terrorists, and some of the Harper’s group may be concerned about that experience.

The Cancel Culture Comes to Football

Sometimes health and safety issues trump other interests. To borrow from the Bard, “To Open, or Not to Open: That is the Question.” Most schools are planning on reopening in some fashion, and in recognition of the fact that interaction between faculty and students, and students with each other, is at the heart of the collegiate experience, schools are appropriately struggling with trade-offs between safety and good health on the one hand, and fully achieving their mission on the other.

But collegiate sports are another matter. The U.S. is the only major nation where colleges have athletic teams that are an important part of campus culture. If football is not played commercially, the college experience goes on. Football is an important American entertainment—I eagerly attend or watch games and scour weekly rankings. But it is not a necessity, rather what John Stuart Mill once called a “superfluity” of life.

The denizens of the Ivy League have done crazy things recently (see earlier posts), but they did this one right, canceling fall sports. Kids playing football are not social distancing, nor are those watching the events. As bad, perhaps, as gathering in crowded bars. For schools like Harvard to ban live instruction (as they have) this fall, but allow contact sports to continue with an audience, would make a mockery of efforts to contain Covid-19.

Then something happened that temporarily turned the anno horribilis almost into an annus mirabilis: the Big Ten cancelled about 25 percent of its fall football games, the non-conference events where Big Ten teams devour less proficient teams from lesser leagues to pad their win-loss record and provide the wannabe powerhouses some cash for the humiliation. Probably they are trying to stave off total cancellation like the Ivy League, but it is at least a tacit recognition that campus life can go on without football.